Have You Done a Redundancy Audit?

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to address something that is common with businesses of all sizes, types and industries. Chasing the shiny new project, product or service is exciting. In fact, it can reinvigorate your team, and build momentum for continued progress.

Clearing the deck for progress, doesn’t just mean establishing tasks, deadlines, milestones and holding team members accountable, it should include a careful audit of all the processes, tasks, and routines that your team is doing on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Further, once the audit is complete, it will be very easy to update periodically to ensure peak efficiency. Many would categorize this as a LEAN Management principle, specifically the “Sort” part of the Kaizen Framework – separating what is needed and what is not needed.

The great thing is that a redundancy audit can be applied to all functions in an organization, and for transportation it can be extended to the driver’s seat. There are non-value adding tasks being done everyday, and for those that want to profit more with the same overhead – this is a crucial step.

Step 1 – Make a List

Have your staff list all the tasks that they do on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.  Ask the team to be specific as they can to best identify any unnecessary tasks and processes are being completed.  Conversely, this may be an enlightening exercise – you may not be aware of all the important functions a team member performs each day, week and month. However, be aware that the person doing the work may “hide” some tasks, intentionally or unintentionally, especially if they involve something they enjoy doing, or that have a social aspect to them.  These are areas where you may run into some resistance to your change efforts.  Consider the use of internal auditors, but keep in mind that people will act differently when they are being observed.

Ensure that communications about the process are kept up and ensure that the audit is not done in a bubble.  Ensure that people understand why this process is happening and get them to focus on what they will gain from it instead of what they will lose.  Ask the staff for input as to which of their items that they feel are redundant.  Solicit feedback as to why they feel these things are good candidates to be eliminated.  At the same time, get their opinion on how they could improve on the tasks on their lists as they may be aware of ways to improve performance that are currently outside of accepted procedures.  Reach out to your customers and see if there are any statements, reports, etc. that you are currently providing that they no longer need or that could be provided in an alternative format.  As an example, have your sales staff ask their customers if they are willing to go to automated invoices, or if they really want to get monthly statements.

Step 2 – Meet as a group to review and prioritize

Use the concept of “would a customer pay for this” as a starting point.  In addition, look for duplicated efforts in various parts of the organization – perhaps both accounting and operations are performing essentially the same task without knowing it.  Pay special attention to the reports people are creating as these are easily duplicated or are candidates for automation.  Maybe you have an underutilized customer web access portal that could eliminate some phone calls and generate customer value by letting them gain access to their information when they want it.  Be aware that some low value tasks or processes may have regulatory reasons for doing them – either for you or your customer.  These are items that you must ensure are not discontinued.

Begin with items that are being duplicated in different departments.  Put those to the affected departments to find a way to do the same thing in a format that all can use (such as reports). Next look for items that provide no or minimal value that will have a low cost to eliminate.   Lastly, any processes that will require major re-engineering or automation will require a full ROI and cost-benefit analysis before implementation.

The last step is to go back to the stakeholders and ensure that there is agreement on what the priorities are.  Be prepared to put your sales hat on, as some departments or staff members will have a harder time seeing the need to change.  Effort spent at this stage will get paid back easily during the elimination or implementation phase.

Step 3 – Eliminate

Focus on the low hanging fruit first – anything that just does not need to be performed or done in a different manner.  Then move forward using Cost/Benefit as your guide. Be sure to re-evaluate as you progress – did you eliminate something that a customer requires?  Be prepared to back track or re-evaluate how you implement the changes based on circumstances that will arise as you implement.  Somewhere in the process you are going to eliminate a report that someone really uses but did not tell you in the investigation stage.  Be ready to bring something back if this happens and understand that it could stay under the radar for a few months.

Step 4 – Repeat Quarterly

Keep in mind that situations, needs and regulations change constantly.  What is necessary today can become obsolete tomorrow.  Ensure that you take time every quarter to go back to this process and re-evaluate not only the progress but what else can be eliminated.  The team will find that in a lot of cases they didn’t eliminate enough as people will start to ask: “do I really need this, or can I get the same result from something else”?  If the answer is yes, then put that task or process back under the microscope.  In some cases, it may take several iterations until you get that process right.

The first time through the process will be painful.  There will be a lot of “that is how we have always done things” raised. People may resent or be fearful of the process as they will focus on what they could lose.  Get some easy victories first, show people the value of the process and you will see people really get onboard.  As you get into making this an ongoing process it will become a habit, and that is when you will really see a shift in the organization’s performance.

Manual Processes are Killing Your Business (slowly)

You’ve done it a thousand times. Walking through operations, you’ve asked yourself “Why am I paying these smart people to spend half their time doing mindless tasks and data entry? What if I could free up their time to allow them to do what they do best – solve problems. That would give them more purpose – that would give our business more purpose”. Ok, maybe you didn’t think those words exactly, but I can guarantee that if you’re a high-performing company, it was something along those lines. Although detention and delay times are the items with the largest targets on their backs with respect to operational efficiency, you don’t have to look to far for the next one on the list – manual data monitoring, entry and management.

We generate endless volumes of data each day in our dispatch and accounting systems.  Even more is found in unstructured formats, such as e-mails, and invoices.  Many paid hours are spent taking information from one format and rekeying it into one or more other disparate systems.  This duplicated effort is not only expensive, but it opens the (large) possibility of errors through typing mistakes or missed documentation.

The reality is, many of the tasks handled by our operations, accounting and customer service teams are repetitive and prime candidates for automation.  In general, any repetitive, rule-based task is a prime candidate for automation.  So why haven’t they already been automated?  Until recently such automation required a lot of expensive programming that resulted in systems that were not very flexible.  Simple upgrades of your dispatch system could cause the automation to fail simply by having a table renamed.  When this happens, your team must revert to the old manual processes until the programmer has the updates in place. The other reason is human nature. The growing list of portals and manual updates downloaded to today’s bus companies is like compound interest. It started with a work-around to make one customer happy and has grown exponentially to the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.

Web portals have become more common.  Documents such as invoices can be easily uploaded.  Documentation supporting additional charges can be transmitted, and many can log comments when further explanation is required. However, they can introduce other inefficiencies.  A human is still needed to transfer or transpose the information into the portal.  Errors are still possible and very likely, despite best efforts.  Depending on the internet speed where that employee is located, a lot of time could be wasted if your team member must wait for the information to get uploaded to the site and then wait again for the next screen to load.

The Institute for Robotic Process Automation defines RPA as “the application of technology that allows employees in a company to configure computer software or a ‘robot’ to capture and interpret existing applications for processing a transaction, manipulating data, triggering responses and communicating with other digital systems.”  In more practical terms, it’s software that you can “teach” to move information from multiple inputs to multiple systems without the help of a human.  RPA is designed to be deployed in days or weeks, not months.  It also does not care where the information comes from or where it goes to.  One of it’s strengths is that it does not rely on things like API’s to bridge into other systems or require complex programming to work.

Let’s look at a simple example that happens many times a day in your company.  A customer e-mails a charter or field trip request to your CSR team.  The CSR is constantly monitoring their e-mail for these requests.  When they see one, they are likely saving (sometimes printing) the email to get the request on file.  The CSR then creates the order and enters the charter details.  Once it is in your dispatch system, the CSR then replies to the original e-mail to confirm that the order has been entered and received.  Depending on how busy it is, each CSR may be doing many of these transactions every day.  Each of these steps could be automated by RPA.  The robot can monitor the email queues more efficiently than a human can.  It will parse each e-mail and pull out the new charter request information.  That data is then moved into your dispatch system where it checks availability and schedules the pickup date, time and location.  Because RPA is rules based, if there is missing information or any other exception, it will flag the appropriate CSR to handle it.  Once there are no exceptions, the system will generate and send the customer email confirmation.  In this one scenario you can see that the CSR will now have time to work on higher value-added tasks, likely making their work much more interesting.   The process will be handled more efficiently, and the possibility of errors is greatly reduced. The best part is you can implement entirely on your own, no need to get in the long queue with your dispatch system provider to complete it on your behalf.

So, what should you pay attention to when considering an RPA implementation?  A recent CIO.com article gave 8 keys to having a successful RPA implementation.

  1. Do the Research – Frank Casale, founder of the Institute for Robotic Process Automation & Artificial Intelligence, recommends that you invest the time to build a business case for RPA and learn about the products available. There are three key boxes to get success and only having two out of three will not work. The boxes include:
    1. Choosing the right technology solution to meet your organization’s needs;
    2. Creating a solid business case for RPA, including developing ROI metrics;
    3. Assessing current processes and organizational issues to avoid political problems. Keep in mind that RPA is a disrupting technology. People will fear that the technology will affect their jobs, possibly eliminating them. The human resources that will be affected are not going to be eager to train the robots that might replace them.  A vision and roadmap for the future needs to be communicated and it should include new opportunities for displaced workers. Managers also need to go in with open eyes, a cautiously optimistic mindset. Management of expectations is critical.
  2. Educate Staffers About RPA – It’s important to clarify what the technology will and will not do with regards to employees’ job roles. Many organizations use RPA strategically by helping staff do routine tasks quickly and efficiently so that they can spend time addressing higher priority needs. Determine how your company will use the technology and then honestly communicate what that vision is so that you get people onside with you before rolling the technology out.
  3. Determine Where the Technology Will Work Best – You will want to identify processes where you are most likely to see a positive business impact. Keep in mind that it will not always be easy. However, as the organization becomes more experienced with RPA, other processes will more easily be uncovered.  Many successful implementations are very selective as to what processes to automate – look for something that it repetitive and frequent.  Once you have achieved some initial success, fight the urge to try and automate everything.  If a task can not be done without a very limited amount of human interaction (preferably none), then it really is not a suitable candidate.  When picking your first process, remember that while cost reductions are important, improving customer experience is even more valuable.  The client experience is what will be your competitive advantage.
  4. Keep It Simple and Modular – RPA works best when it is not complex. As much as possible, keep your bots as generic, common and reusable objects. Mona Kahn of Fannie Mae recommends that you externalize all variables and logic to minimize failure points. This makes it much easier to update when something changes and makes it much faster and easier to test before putting the changes into production.
  5. Don’t Neglect Data Security – Make certain that processes can not be manipulated. Start with any processes that are business or mission critical. These must be secured before any implementation is attempted.  Regardless of how critical a specific task is, keep in mind that RPA will process much faster than a human can, so ensuring that a bot is secure must happen during the testing phase and this should be a show stopper if it is not secure.
  6. Test Implementations Regularly – Notwithstanding what we just discussed, testers can only try to test so many points of attack. Weaknesses are going to appear once the robot has gone live. Keep in mind that individual testers may not be as experienced with a process and may only be looking for positive results.  If possible, include the staff that actually do the task in the testing phase.  Additionally, test the automation on desktops running legacy systems to ensure that the desktop will be capable of handling the infrastructure requirements.  It is critical that you understand how different bots work together so that processes do not break.
  7. Develop a Cross-Functional Center of Excellence – By this, I mean put together a team that will share experiences and best practices to other parts of the organization. The idea is to leverage previous efforts to ensure that the wheel does not get reinvented repeatedly.  Make sure that both failures and successes are documented to make certain that the knowledge of those experiences is not lost.
  8. Prepare for Future Advances and Challenges – RPA is going to advance, and each company must keep up with the changes. Eventually, each organization will struggle with the management of the automation. End users will find ways to automate desktop processes for their own use, so understanding how the introduction, elimination or upgrading of enterprise applications will affect these deployed bots will become increasingly critical.  Like any other asset, bots need to be tracked and managed so that they can properly be maintained.  Consider what would happen if a password policy was changed for one of the applications the bot uses and how would you know if data is not being properly passed though?

 

So, what is driving the implementation of RPA?  The obvious one is cost reductions.  Forrester Research estimates that about 16% of US jobs could be replaced by RPA by 2025, while creating new jobs that are equivalent to 9%, meaning a net loss of 7% of jobs.  This is because bots are generally low cost and relatively easy to implement.  In the financial services sector, there is a major shift away from manual, clerical-type jobs and a move towards more analyst or advisory jobs.  The shift is being fueled by the vast amounts of data that RPA is creating, resulting in customers needing more human advice to help them process it.  In some cases, bots are assisting the human advisors by identifying patterns and offering options that the advisor can then present and explain to their clients.

There are several companies that have experience in working with our industry.  These include:

  • Kofax with it’s products that include Kapow, TotalAgility and Information Capture
  • Pega with it’s Pega Infinity digital transformation suite
  • Jacada with it’s Jacada Agent Desktop Automation
  • Automation Anywhere has it’s Automation Anywhere Enterprise Suite
  • UIPath – the UIPath Enterprise RPA Platform
  • Nintex Platform – utilizing Promapp, DocGen, Xtensions Framework and Hawkeye applications
  • IBM – Robotic Process Automation with Automation Anywhere

For those with an in-house development team (even a small one), building your own RPA toolkit and ‘army of bots’ is possible. There is even an open-source development framework to get you started. This Python-based framework – Selenium, is used by thousands of companies all over the world. Its worth examining if RPA is on your to-do list for 2019.

Any of the companies or open-source packages that offer RPA tools, can allow your company to achieve similar or even greater success. The key is to know what it is that you want to accomplish – without a defined project scope there is a significantly reduced likelihood of goal achievement.  In fact, without spelling out what will constitute success and how to measure it you are probably dooming the project to failure right at the start.  It also means that you are more likely to use someone or something other than the optimal solution provider.  Similarly, the management of expectations is another critical component.  Your people need to understand that it will take some time to optimize and implement these bots.  If someone is offering to come in and “have you up and running in a week”, be very skeptical and ask some very pointed questions as to how that will happen.  It is possible that they have extensive industry specific experience and have semi-customizable templates that can get you implemented quickly.  If they tell you that “customer service is customer service” then they probably are not going to work.  A quick example is with scheduling charters.  If an RPA provider does not understand how HOS can impact transit times, then they may program a solution that ignores the regulations.  A lack of industry experience does not have to be a deal breaker, but it will mean that your project team will have to spend more time and be more explicit in their requirements and specifications document.

So, in summary, some quick takeaways on RPA are:

  • Robotic Process Automation is a potential game changer for our industry, possibly causing a revolution in how we handle routine customer service tasks.
  • People are going to be afraid of losing their jobs when they hear the terms “robot” or “automation”. Expect that reaction and have education and communication resources prepared to help people get over those fears.
  • The potential for head count reduction is there, but it should not necessarily be the driving force behind this initiative. It is more likely that you will be able to handle more productivity out of the same number of people.
  • Do not treat automation as an ad hoc process. Have some form of control over where bots are implemented and try to use common programming as much as possible. This will allow you to know what needs to be updated when other systems are upgraded.  Additionally, it will greatly reduce the time needed to develop fixes when problems arise.
  • Start with processes that occur regularly so that you have a few highly visible wins to the start of the project.
  • Expect there will be setbacks. Many of these processes have dependencies and it only takes one to cause a failure. Involve the people who currently do the job in the testing phase.  They will have seen the process breakdown before and can offer insights as to where to challenges may come from. This in turn will allow for more robust testing pre-implementation.  It will also increase the acceptance of RPA as they will have some say in how it is implemented.
  • RPA is not a magic bullet. Managing expectations is critical. Exceptions are going to happen. Some processes will consider having 40 to 50% of appointments scheduled by the bot a success.  Other processes may achieve closer to 95%.  Some processes may require human interactions.  Your team needs to be prepared for these to happen.  At the same time, let them know what that 40% means in terms of freeing up time to handle their other tasks that might be getting pushed off to the side.

Succession Planning – Is Your Bench Ready to Step Up?

Scenario #1 – It’s a sunny afternoon, and you are sitting in your office working on a presentation for one of your major customers that you are meeting next week regarding some new routes.  The phone rings, you answer it and it’s the OPP.  Your major accounts salesperson has just been in a horrific accident on the 401 and is being airlifted to the hospital.  The officer asks for family contacts as it’s not looking good.  As you go through your contact list you get a nasty feeling in your stomach.  You were going to be meeting with Jody later today to go over strategy and review some data that she got from the customer this morning.  She has been hands-on with this customer and has a lot of information that no one else has.

Scenario #2 – You are about to board a plane to come home from meeting another of your important customers when your VP of Operations calls you.  Joe, your Operations Director for the GTA got into another argument with the VP and has just quit with no notice.  One of your seasonal customers has just started to ramp up their tour season and Joe was arranging the coaches to service them.  Joe was an “off the cuff” sort of guy, and none of his ‘plan’ was written down.

Both scenarios are exaggerated, but they do represent real and persistent risks that all businesses face – what to do if a key employee leaves, or is incapacitated?  Who would you move into their place? What training would they need?  What information gaps will result?

Succession Planning is a strategy that you have in place for when employees leave or retire.  This plan looks at both expected and unexpected departures, and the aim is to ensure that no significant expertise or leadership is lost upon their departure.  A key aspect of the plan is to identify high-potential employees, who appear to be a good fit for grooming into a leadership role.  A second key aspect is a training and mentoring plan to evaluate and nurture their skills so that an easy transition can occur when needed.

For your less-senior employees, a succession plan offers them an excellent professional development plan, that will enable them to learn and grow with your organization as they train for future roles.  By bringing these new faces into the management realm, you will bring in a new set of experiences and perspectives into the decision-making process.  This diversification helps your company set itself up for further growth.

There are a number of frameworks available to assist in creating a succession plan, but Teala Wilson of Saba Software has proposed one of the more flexible ones:

  1. Establish measurable goals to guide the succession planning program. Make sure that these measurements are aligned with the organization’s strategic goals.
  2. Re-calibrate succession planning program goals on an annual basis. This allows for changes in personnel as well as the changing market environment.
  3. Prepare current job descriptions so that the work to be performed is clear.
  4. Prepare competency models by level on the organization chart. Requirements need to be objective, clear and measurable.  This is the time to look at what future competencies are required to achieve future strategic goals.
  5. Carefully define the roles to be played by each key stakeholder group in the succession planning process. Keep senior managers and stakeholders engaged in the process by establishing clear and measurable accountabilities.
  6. Establish talent pools by level based on the strategic strengths of the organization.
  7. Take an inventory of your talent. Ensure that individual strengths and areas for improvement are recognized.  Do an organization wide SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to look for gaps in bench strength that will need filling either within or outside of the organization.  Do these reviews on a periodic basis to ensure that no new gaps have developed.
  8. Evaluate the entire succession planning program on a regular (usually annual) basis. Compare the measurements against the stated goals to guide where you need to focus on.

Once you have this framework in place, you will then start to determine if you have capable (and willing) internal candidates that can be groomed for future advancement, or if there are areas that you need to go outside of the company.  Where possible, going with an internal candidate is the ideal choice – they already are familiar with your business and it generally is less costly to train and develop from within, than it is to go through the process of doing an outside hire and then getting that person up to a competent level of performance.  There is a risk that someone you groom may leave before you can move them into a higher position, but through proper management of expectations you should be able to create an increased sense of loyalty that will help with retention.

When looking at candidates for inclusion in this program don’t just take the easy path and target only your current high performers.  Look at each individual and determine what their future potential is.   As an example, just because Jim is your best sales rep does not mean that he would be your best candidate for a sales manager role.  Becky may have a more average sales performance but may have a better personality fit to coach and lead your sales staff.  Look for people who are clearly in the wrong role (based on education, personality, etc.) and consider them for a hybrid role that could pave the way for an increased leadership role.  Take the time to identify the potential within your organization, and then develop a plan to tap into it and better leverage your existing talent.

Finally make sure that there is buy-in for this program at the senior level.  Nothing will derail this program faster than upper managers not participating fully in it.  Some may see this as an exercise in pushing themselves out of a job.  Ensure that there is a clear link between this program and the company’s strategic plan, with flexibility built-in to balance the long term and short-term goals.  By working this process into your current hiring process, you will ensure that you are getting the candidates that you need in the future, not just a “good enough” for today’s need.  The recruiting process is expensive, and this process will give you the tools to be more effective with bringing on new people. Take time away from your whirlwind – short term pain = long term gain.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution

Every leader struggles to keep their teams focused while dealing with an ever changing environment.  Juggling the micro (customers, loads, weather), with the macro (consumer trends, competitive forces, regulations). What seemed important yesterday gets put on the back burner by the latest crisis – it is quite literally an endless treadmill. At the end of the year you may look back and say, “why didn’t we get that done?”.  Most leaders are ambitious by nature – we all want to conquer the world and everything that it throws at us. Some of us consider saying “no” as a sign of weakness or fear. As a result, we take on more than is possible to achieve. To complicate things, even if we don’t take on too much, our goals are either seen as not important enough, or not defined well enough to give our teams the focus (and the energy) that is needed.  If only there was a better way, if we could do more with less. Franklin Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution (4DX) method is what you are looking for.

The 4 Disciplines of Execution is both a program offered by Franklin Covey (for more information, click here), as well as a book written by Chris McChesney, National Execution Practice Leader for Franklin Covey, Sean Covey, Executive VP of global Solutions and Partnerships for Franklin Covey and Jim Huling, Managing Consultant for Franklin Covey’s 4 Disciplines of Execution.

The three authors describe “The 4 Disciplines of Execution as precise rules for translating strategy into action at all levels of an organization. When applied, “the 4 Disciplines produce extraordinary results by tapping the desire to win that exists in every individual.” (Forbes – 2012/04/23) The implementation of 4DX is not a top-down, nor a bottom-up process. It requires the involvement of senior leaders but at the same time gives team leaders at lower levels the freedom to define their own goals that will contribute the most to the overall goal. In short, leaders only veto, never dictate so that teams will be fully committed to the goals and to be accountable for their results.

The Franklin Covey website states that the 4DX Process has been refined to achieve 3 objectives:

  1. High quality implementation in the shortest time.
  2. Maximum leader and team engagement with minimum disruption to business operations.
  3. Sustainable WIG (Wildly Important Goal) results through full process adoption (new habits).

The 4 Disciplines:

  1. Focus on the Wildly Important Goal – only 15% of employees know their organization’s most important goals – either there are no goals, or they have too many goals. Extraordinary results can only be achieved when you are clear about what matters most. As simple as this principle may sound, few leaders ever master it. 4DX teaches why focus is so critical and how to overcome your biggest source of resistance. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple puts it this way: “We are the most focused company that I know of, or have read of, or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day. We say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number so that we can put enormous energy behind the ones we do choose. The table each of you are sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, yet Apple’s revenue last year was $40 billion.” There are a few rules that apply to keeping focused:
    • No more than 1-2 WIGS per team or person.
    • The battles have to win the war.
    • You can veto, but don’t dictate.
    • Every goal must have a gap from X to Y by When.
  2. Act of Lead Measures – Too many people don’t know what critical activities provide the greatest leverage to achieving team goals. With unlimited time and resources, you could accomplish anything. Unfortunately, your challenge is usually the opposite: accomplish more with less. 4DX shows leaders where they can find real leverage and how to use it to produce extraordinary results.
  3. Keep a Compelling Scoreboard – People play differently when they are keeping score. You also have the authority to make things happen, but you want more than that – you want the performance that only passion and engagement can produce. 4DX enables leaders to rise from authority-driven compliance to passion-driven commitment in themselves and the people they lead. Ensure that the scoreboard is a player’s scoreboard – it should be simple; highly visible to the players; has the right lead and lag measures; and tells you immediately if we are winning or losing.
  4. Create a Cadence of Accountability – Fewer than 10 percent of people meet with their manager at least monthly to discuss their progress on work goals. No matter how brilliant your plan or how important your goal, nothing will happen until you follow through with consistent action. 4DX brings the practices that drive accountability and follow through, despite a whirlwind of competing priorities. To maintain this accountability, weekly or daily meetings are held that focus on the WIG. These need to be held regularly and should not take longer than 20 minutes. In these meetings each member reports on: Did I meet last week’s commitments; Did I move the scoreboard; What will I commit to for this week? It’s human nature for people to commit to their own ideas before they commit to orders from above. Leverage this! Also, by making these commitments publicly in the meeting, they are transforming the commitments from job performance to a personal promise – a very self motivating shift in mindset.

Ultimately, Discipline 4 is the most crucial. It is the discipline where the actual “game” is played. However, without Disciplines 1 to 3, you will not have a winnable game. Chris Chesney summarizes the 4 Disciplines in this video.  Brian Johnson takes a more in depth look in this video.

There are a couple of key reasons why execution is so difficult. The first is that people must change their behaviour, something that is never easy. 4DX identifies two different types of strategies.  The first is referred to as “stroke of the pen”. This includes items such as capital investments, expansion of staff, changes in policies or programs and strategic acquisitions. The second type is Behaviour Change. This includes things like improved customer service, process adoptions, higher quality services, faster responsiveness and operational consistency. (Source: pmimilehi.org)

Stroke of the Pen strategies are relatively easy to implement and are top-driven. Behavioural Change is much harder to implement but results in lasting change and potentially a major shift in how the organization operates. Think of any time that you have achieved a goal. It probably required you to do something that you have never done before. It wasn’t easy, was it? You likely had to dig deep down to pull it off.  You had doubts that you would be able to do it and even why you should even try at all. It’s human nature to want to leave things as they are – for a lot of people change is scary. This is why the first three Disciplines are needed. It’s really just common sense – communicate to people why they need to change and where it fits with the organization’s goals. In short – tell them why it’s important. Explain what are the crucial steps that are going to define success. Finally, motivate the troops so that THEY feel passionate about winning (otherwise known as making the necessary change). If you are going change people’s behaviours, you really need them to be 100% onboard or your chances of success will be minimal.

The second challenge to execution is implementing these changes in an environment that’s already swirling with urgent priorities (what the authors call the Whirlwind). If you want the initiative to succeed, you need to have it cut through the background noise so that everyone sees that it is of the utmost importance to implement.   Again, this just makes sense. If everyone is constantly being bombarded with competing “goals” that are all “the most important”, they are just going to tune them all out unless they are given a reason to believe that one is more important. If you make it easy for them to see which goal is the most important, you give them the clarity needed to focus on it.

The authors (Forbes interview 2012/04/23) give three specific requirements for concentrating your time on what’s most important:

  1. The leader must narrow their focus. Because leaders are always drawn to new ideas, this is not only hard to initiate as well as being difficult to sustain.  Leaders need to learn how to say “no” or “not now” to new ideas until the results on the strategy have been achieved.
  2. The leader needs to focus on leading outcomes of behaviours, not overall results.  This is probably a 180 compared to the normal focus on results. The leader needs to be playing the long game, understanding that changing the outcomes or behaviours will lead to better results.  Think of it as needing to learn how to crawl before you walk, and that learning to walk must happen before you can run. Skipping steps may seem expedient and lead to a quicker “result”, but it is probably at the cost of not being sustainable.  Once the focus is off, your staff could likely fall back on “the way we always did it”. Not only will the point of what you tried to implement be lost, but staff will probably become more cynical about future initiatives, making them less likely to succeed. The authors put it like this: “focusing solely on results doesn’t drive the highest performance – it’s like driving a car while looking in the rear-view mirror.”
  3. Create a sense of shared accountability. When accountability is only felt between each team member and their boss, the effect is limited.  Make team members feel accountable to each other and performance shifts from being professional to personally important. Most people will work hard to avoid disappointing their boss, they will work even harder to avoid disappointing their team. The result is a significantly increased level of performance and follow-through.

Much of 4DX rests on the principle of diminishing returns – the more you try to do, the less you accomplish. Most of us are ambitious and want to do more, even when we know we shouldn’t. It’s hard to say no or not now to a good idea, even more so if it is a great one. However, there will always be a lot of good ideas, more than you or your team can execute.  Therefore, the first Discipline is focusing on the Wildly Important Goal (WIG). You need to start with one (or at most two) wildly important goals to avoid trying to improve everything at once. The term “wildly important” makes it clear to the team that this is what will matter the most. Just setting the WIG is not enough – it must have a clearly measurable result as well as a target date for the result to be achieved.  As simple as this seems, the authors have found that most leaders struggle to reduce their strategic concepts into a single “from X to Y by When” finish line, even though this delivers a tremendous degree of clarity to the team.

To understand why you want to keep a compelling scorecard, think about a group of teenagers playing basketball and how they change once the score is being kept.  It’s simple – people play differently when they are keeping score. You have already defined what is required to “win”, but people need to see where they are in terms of achieving that win.  Everybody likes to be a winner. Think of the effort that a team puts in when they are in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game of a series and are down by a run. The definition of success is clear, everyone understands what they need to do to achieve the goal and there is no other option but to execute.  You need to offer the same thing for your team. The scorecard needs to be designed to motive the team members to play to win. Keep it simple, visible, have the right leading and lagging measures and make sure that it tells them immediately if they are winning or losing. So, if your goal is to increase sales of Product X by 15% by December 31st, show the team where they are sitting – if it’s at 14%, and they see that there are Z dollars worth of orders in the pipe then it’s simple for them to understand how much more in additional sales needs to be found.  And if the goal has already been met, then stretch the goal. Keep it attainable, and even better, let the team set it. That’s the ultimate in making the team members accountable to each other. Have them determine what each member is going to do, set the total as the new target and watch the performance.  Think of it, who wants to be the one that let the team down? The team will be committed to achieving the goal and will put their maximum effort at achieving it. That sort of comradery can be sustained, reinforcing the new behaviours and aiming them towards higher performance.

Still skeptical that this is real and not just some theory? Franklin Covey’s website (www franklincovey.com), states that they have tested and refined these principles with hundreds of organizations and over 126,000 teams over many years.  Below, J.W Marriott and Sonny Perdue share how their organizations to drive better results:

Many of the foundational values of Marriott are embodied within The 4 Disciplines of Execution. By utilizing this process inside our organization, our leaders and teams have been able to set and achieve extraordinary goals, which have had a significant impact on making ‘Our Guests’ Experience’ truly remarkable. Any organization can create these same kinds of breakthrough results if they apply the principles and processes taught in this book!” – J.W. Marriott Jr, Chairman and CEO Marriott International Inc. (see video here)

“The State of Georgia had unprecedented success as a result of implementing the principles outlined in The 4 Disciplines of Execution. We certified hundreds of leaders to take the disciplines to every department, achieving unprecedented results in customer service, quality improvement and cost reduction. These execution principles are a must for any government agency that is seeking to be world class.” – The Honorable Sonny Perdue, Governor of Georgia, 2003-2011

These principles may seem like common sense, but they require a leader to have the discipline and knowledge to implement them.  They tend to be out of step (or even the opposite) of how we normally measure the effectiveness of a leader. It will require breaking out of the mould of looking for quick fixes that increase our quarterly results. The leader must learn how to narrow their focus and have the laser-like focus to keep to only one or two goals, achieving more by focusing on less.  It’s not easy, but greater things are possible for those who try it.

Here’s to a year of Execution in 2019! #bebetter

 

Objectives and Key Results: Using OKRs to Execute in 2019

Earlier this year, a colleague of mine enthusiastically recommended a book to me. The book he mentioned was ‘Measure What Matters’ by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and partner with Kleiner Perkins, one of the early investors in companies like Google, Amazon, Sun Microsystems and Twitter (among many others). This book introduces an operational framework for business and personal life, called OKRs.

Before we go further, you may be thinking “What does a book by a Silicon Valley Venture capitalist have to do with My Business?” The answer is everything. Competently and rapidly executing on a well-vetted strategy is a pursuit that businesses, and leaders from all industries should commit to.

A couple of weeks ago I finally began to read ‘Measure What Matters’. Upon completion, it struck me as perhaps a simple (and affordable) way to take businesses to the next level.  Here is our breakdown of OKRs.

The History of Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)

OKR stands for Objectives and Key Results. The concept was developed by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel.  Mr. Grove had a simple but effective way of looking at management – “The key result has to be measurable. But at the end you can look, and without any arguments answer: Did I do that, or did I not do it? Yes? No? Simple, no judgements in it.”

In Measure What Matters, Doerr notes that OKRs became central to Google’s culture as a “management methodology that helps ensure that the company focusses on the same important issues throughout the organization”. In the forward to Doerr’s book, Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet (Google’s parent company), wrote “OKRs have helped lead us to 10x growth, many times over. They’ve helped make our crazily bold mission of ‘organizing the world’s information’ perhaps even achievable. They’ve kept me and the rest of the company on time and on track when it mattered the most.”

Doerr was introduced to OKRs as a salesperson working for Intel in 1975 when he attended a course at Intel that Andy Grove (regularly) taught. Leveraging this education, and practical application within Intel, Doerr used this method to provide the founders of Google to think big and to take action. The concept of OKRs quickly became part of Google’s culture, and is still the core of the behemoth. Other firms that have used OKR include LinkedIn, Twitter and Uber.  However, as mentioned above, the technique is applicable across all industries and organizational sizes.

OKRs: Simplicity in Action

Doerr’s (Grove’s) method can be distilled to the simple statement “I will achieve ‘X’ Objective as Measured by ‘Y’ Key Results.”  The objective is anything that you want to accomplish, that can be measured by numerically-based expressions that point to either success, or progress towards the objective.  An objective may seem easy to develop, however, knowing what the right objectives are can take a significant amount of time and discussion to come up with.

To start with, the objective needs to be something that can be completed by 2-5 key results or actions. You also do not want to have too many objectives, otherwise it will be too difficult to place enough effort at all of them.  Another thing to keep in mind is that an objective must be clear, ambitious, actionable and able to be understood by employees at all levels of the organization. This is important because it ensures that everyone understands the company’s goals and can get on board with them.

Key Results (the defined actions that result in a completed or re-considered objective) also need to be very specific, as they will guide people to ensure that all work is in line with the goals. It must be measurable, attainable, be more than a bit difficult to achieve, and most importantly, quantitative. Key results should for individuals and teams out of their comfort zones. These key results act as a scorecard to see how well the objective is being attained.

Marissa Mayer, a former Google Vice President (and CEO of Yahoo) put it succinctly “if it does not have a number, it is not a key result” (source: filipecastro.com). So, saying “increase the number of new customers” is not a key result, but saying “we bring on 30 new customers by Day, Month, Year” is because it can be quantified. In a lot of ways, it goes back to the old saying that you must be able to measure something in order to be able to manage it. In this case, quantifying makes the goal clearer.  In this case, having a second key result that says “$100,000 in gross sales from new customers” further clarifies the goal, but we aren’t done yet. A third key result that states, “operating profit of $20,000 from new customers”. In each case we have attached a number that defines if the key result has or has not been met. They go from “we want to increase the number of new customers we gain in this period” to “we want that mix of new customers to add up to a certain amount of sales.” This makes sense – if all your new customers only bring you one or two trips per quarter, it’s going to need more than just 30 of them to reach that sales target.  Going further, the new customers must be bringing in a certain average operating profit margin. This intuitively makes sense – bringing in new customers purely by using lower prices to compete is not going to reach the third key result. As you can see, what you choose as your key results has a significant impact on how the objective is tackled by either this level or by the levels below. Even in this example, they can have a very powerful impact on how the goals are achieved.

Key Results for one level of the organization can become the objectives for a lower level.  The concept of a contributing goal is that it contributes to a higher-level (macro) goal. The contributing goal is owned by someone lower down the chain in the organization and drives the progress of the senior goal.  Note that a contributing goal does not have to be less important, it just signifies that it is owned at a lower level of the organization. As an example, the CEO’s objectives are the top goals for the company. The VP’s goals will be contributing goals to the CEO’s objectives, just as a department head’s goals will be contributing goals to the VP. Depending on what the objectives are, they may continue to cascade down, or they may eventually stop at a certain level that is the lowest one that has responsibility to influence the attainment of that objective.  As an example, an objective that deals with customer service may flow to the most junior positions, but one to do with reducing overheads through the reduction of headcount will not likely go below a department head (or higher, depending on the company’s structure).

 

As defined by OKRs, an objective is considered to be accomplished if the key results hits 70-75% of the target. Attaining 100% can indicate that the key results were not made ambitious enough.  This is where creating key results can be a bit of an art form.  Too ambitious of a target can be demotivating while at the same time, one that is too easy to attain will not result in enough effort being put forth to really move the organization forward.  It will not be enough to create ‘purpose momentum’ among the troops. If the key results and objectives are getting attained too quickly, then be prepared to restructure them to get the proper balance and address any issues.

Many sites offer best practices – here are a few common ones:

  • Separate OKRs from compensation and promotions to enable ambitious goals
  • Try to keep to no more than 3 objectives at any time
  • Each objective should have 3-5 key results
  • Set objectives on a quarterly basis as going much longer loses the team’s focus
  • Review progress at a minimum monthly, weekly is preferred so that corrections can be made before problems become too large
  • OKRs should be public – preference is for them to be online and in front of all employees. This allows all employees, regardless if they are included in the OKR, to align their actions with the overall goals of the organization.
  • Sweet spot is to achieve 70% of the results

So how do I get started? There are several software tools available on a subscription or traditional licensing basis (including many free options).  Commercial products include Asana, Weekdone, Perdoo, BetterWorks, 7Geese, 15Five and Atiim are cloud-based, subscription software solutions, each running between $0 and $20 per user per month, depending on the package of services that you require and the size of your team.  Most of these packages will allow you to visualize your objectives, key results and what progress has been made on them.

Personally, I am a big fan of Asana, and use this tool professionally and personally to measure performance on key results and objectives. Asana has a how-to guide (for more information, click here) and offers a pre-created template for creating a company goals and objectives project.  They make it quite user friendly to get up and running. The steps are straight-forward:

  1. Create a list or board project called company goals & objectives. This should be made as a public project so that everyone in the organization can stay aligned with these goals.
  2. Sections or board columns are used to categorize the objectives, such as by team or time period. Additional custom fields can be added to do additional categorization.
  3. Create tasks for the objectives and put them in the proper section for easy organizing.
  4. Assign the task to the primary person responsible for achieving it.
  5. Set a date range for each objective.
  6. Fill out any relevant custom fields and add any additional information so that its clear what the objective is about.
  7. Use the progress tab to communicate major updates on a regular basis so that everyone has a quick idea of how the entire company is progressing toward attaining the objectives.

If you have multiple OKR templates, Project Managers can use Portfolios to help monitor, report and see real-time statuses of multiple initiatives in one place.  Portfolios pull information from each project’s progress tab and quickly create a dashboard to help identify what objectives are on target and which ones are at risk. For more information, consult the Asana how-to guide here.

Springest is a company that has implemented OKR tracking (among other items) with Asana. To view a video where Springest founder Ruben Timmerman discusses how they use Asana to implement and grade their progress on OKRs, click here.

Want to get started on OKRs without incurring additional, external costs? There are several Excel or Google Sheets based templates that you can use to get started.  Most of these are free or are at a very nominal cost to acquire. These can generally be modified to suit your specific requirements. Most of these are suitable for small teams (depending on the template this is up to about 50 employees) and generally this is by design as many are offered by the same companies that offer the full featured software suites that we mentioned previously. Besides the price, there are a few other advantages with these spreadsheet-based templates:

  • You can get up and running quickly as the only real learning curve is creating the OKRs
  • No additional IT overhead is required beyond a shared folder where users can see the sheet
  • Because many of these are created by specific vendors, they do offer a limited view of what that vendor offers in terms of OKR tracking

A minimum amount of training is needed to show end users how to interpret the data.

They do have a few drawbacks that you need to keep in mind:

  • You will want to appoint a gatekeeper that maintains the master copy while sharing a different copy, possibly resulting in some people having the wrong version of the document
  • The data will only be a snapshot as real time will either be very difficult or impossible depending on what platform the sheet is kept on
  • There is a risk that data could get accidentally overwritten, possibly requiring reverting to a backup copy
  • Spreadsheets are portable so there is a risk that the objectives and their results could find their way outside of the organization.

Some of the available options include:

  • How-to-OKR.com that not only provides a template but also a short video walk through as well as an online class in how to get started with OKRs.
  • com that offers a template designed for up to 25 employees.
  • com offers an Excel based template (note, a registration form is required to get the download link)
  • me offers a pdf OKR tracking sheet that can be used manually (note – a registration form is required to get the download link). Recommended only for either a test project or very small teams
  • com offers a template in multiple formats as well as examples and other templates that may be of value to teams starting out with OKR
  • 50Folds offers a Google Sheets template for up to a 20-member team as well as a rough guide on how to use it
  • com offers a 6-step guide as well as an Excel-based template

There are many others that can be found with a quick Google search using “free OKR template”. Adding “Excel” or “Google Sheets” will help narrow down to your preferred spreadsheet program. Regardless of what method you use, put this technique to use!  It’s a very functional way to ensure that your entire organization is working together on the same mission, and towards the same horizon. Make the project public, keep people informed and you will find that even employees not directly involved in the OKRs will start aligning their tasks towards what the project has set as objectives.  You may not see growth as explosive as Google’s, but it’s like an Olympic rowing team. The teams that work together in unison, dipping their oars in the same direction and rhythm are who perform the best.

So You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time – Part 2

Last week we looked at how to use the Eisenhower Matrix to help determine what is urgent and important and how to handle tasks that fall in the other parts of the matrix.   This week we look at eliminating distractions, saying “no” and breaking big assignments into smaller tasks.

Set Time Constraints

You become more productive when you allocate a specific amount of time to complete a specific task.  Parkinson’s law states “work expands so as to fill the time available for it’s completion.”  If you reduce the time that you must complete a task, your brain is forced to focus on and complete it.  As an example, take a task that normally takes you 20 minutes.  Set a timer for 10 minutes and work as hard as possible to beat it.  You might not beat the timer, but by setting that goal you will force yourself to eliminate any time wasting or low value tasks that get in the way of getting it done more quickly and efficiently.

Eliminate Distractions

A study from UC – Irvine found that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to a task after being distracted.  Trying to multi-task will waste more time than if you focus on one task at a time.  Switching tasks imposes a time cost, even if it is not the 23 minutes found in the study it is still time that could have been spent on getting things done.  It takes time to regain your focus and getting back up to peak performance, so eliminating that time will automatically gain you more time in your day.

A few suggestions on eliminating distractions:

  • Turn off notifications on your devices
  • Get out of the habit of checking emails as soon as they arrive – consider finding ways to identify the important senders (such as the CEO or your top customers) and use those as ways to help you prioritize. Set up rules to send things like supplier fliers or that industry newsletter that sometimes has something to get automatically routed to specific folders that you review as part of your low priority or energy task times.
  • Leave your phone someplace that is not in your direct line of sight to reduce the number of times you look at it.
  • Use headphones to block out environmental noise. They also make you look like you are plugged in and on task, reducing the likelihood of a co-worker interrupting you with non-urgent questions or gossip.
  • Minimize your use of social media as much as possible. If you must use it, schedule specific time blocks for it and set a timer so that you don’t get caught up in it.
  • Use “Do Not Disturb” functions on workplace chat systems.
  • If you have an office, shut the door when you are working on high importance and value items.
  • Make quick decisions on things that have a small or medium impact. Spend your time on the items that will have an impact on a long time frame or impact many people.

Say No More Often Than Yes

The idea is to not say yes to do things that do not contribute to your work and goals.  Warren Buffet once said that “the difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say no to almost everything.” He also developed a two-step rule to help set boundaries and become better at decision making:

  1. Write down your top 25 goals. When you are done, circle the five that are most important to you.
  2. Completely eliminate the other 20 goals. Learn to say “no” to anything that does not contribute to the five remaining goals.

Make sure that those 5 goals align with what your current job function is.  This will help you avoid being everything to everyone and remove the distractions that prevent you from achieving your goals.

Single Task and Break Down Big Tasks

A myth has developed that we are able to multitask.  Our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time.  Start to single task by putting your phone away, close any apps on your computer that you don’t need for the task at hand, and only move to the next task when this one is completed.  This will avoid any switching costs.  Use the Pomodoro Technique.  This has 5 steps and works in 25-minute blocks:

  1. Choose one task and one task only.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on that task until the timer goes and put a check mark on a tracker.
  4. Take a 5-minute break.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 three more times and then take a 15-minute break.

This will force you to get into cycles of distraction-free concentration that will improve both the quantity and quality of your work.  By breaking down large tasks into smaller, more manageable tasks you can create more realistic milestones.  Try to make all milestones so that they can be achieved in less than one hour.  Make your list, put them in order and then start running them through the Pomodoro Technique.  You will stop procrastinating and start tackling and completing large tasks in a much shorter time frame.  Large projects will not look as daunting and you find that the tasks can be focused on one at a time, causing you to gain and sustain momentum.

Let Go of Perfectionism

Aiming for perfection is a way to ensure that you will delay your work and miss deadlines.  While perfection is a goal, knowing when the return on effort has gone negative is a must.  Delivering something that is high quality is more important than being perfect. In fact, trying to be perfect will tend to make you put things off.  Know what is “good enough” and achieve that.  You may have to fix some things later but trying for perfect will result in you focusing on things that are unimportant to the user.    Mark Twain said it best – “continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”

Batch Similar Tasks

Finally, we all have tasks that require similar mindsets.  Find what those tasks are and complete them all at one time.  This allows you to stay in a flow and minimize task-switching costs.  If you have several related spreadsheets that need updating on a regular basis, group those tasks together and get them done while your mind is in that groove.  Batching will help you to create synergies that will help you find ways to do them even more efficiently.

Regardless of what techniques you use, the important thing is to find a way to measure what is important, how much time that should take and how well you are doing against that standard.  If you are meeting or exceeding the standard, then you need to move the goal so that you are continually improving.  We all need to determine where the balance point is between being perfect and being good enough.  Time is finite, and it has an opportunity cost – there is always something else that you could be doing.  By using a framework to determine priorities that takes importance and urgency into account, you will have a way to keep your eye on what tasks need to get done and when.  It’s not easy, but if you attack it like a project, one step at a time, you will be on your way towards greater productivity while gaining back the time that you need to take care of the things that really matter.

So, You Think You Don’t Have Enough Time?

We all do things that waste time.  Some of us will do low-value tasks that we really should be delegating (or just not do at all), but we feel that no one will be able to do it as well as we do.  Others will look at a huge project and procrastinate because it appears to be too big and complex, likely doing unimportant tasks to put off that large task that scares us.  Still others are perfectionists who continue with a task long after the return on the additional effort is negative. Alternatively, a perfectionist may put off tasks because they are uncertain that they can perform at the unrealistic level that they set for themselves. Finally, there are some of us who get a feeling of importance by never saying no to requests.  It feels good to be the go-to person that everyone thinks can do the impossible.  However, by never saying no we make everything a priority, and, in the end, nothing gets done.  Let’s face it, time and task management are not something that any of us will ever get perfect.  What we all need to do is determine what is “good enough” and then use that as a starting point towards continually improving.

There are several ways that one can use to improve our time and task management skills.  None of them are one-size fits all.  You may find that some are better at one stage in your career, but they may need to be changed or modified as you change roles and responsibilities.  You may have other ways of managing that work better for you.  The important thing is to create a system that works for you and continue to improve it over time.  Holding on to things that don’t work is another time cost that we put on ourselves!

Organize Work Around Energy Levels

Find your most productive hours and schedule high value and high energy tasks during those times.  As an example, if you are a morning person then do your most critical work when you start your day.  After lunch, your energy level may drop a bit so use that time to do more administrative tasks.

You should also know your energy levels by day.  Most people find Tuesdays and Wednesdays as their most productive days, so scheduling their most difficult and important tasks on those days will lead to getting more done.

Start the Day with Critical Work

Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.  And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”  He was talking about determining what is your most important or hardest task and dealing with it first.  Getting it done will bring you momentum for the rest of the day.  Think about it – if you have already achieved your most important goal for the day then tackling the rest of them will seem easy by comparison and that positive mindset will carry with you throughout the day.  Elon Musk suggests that you “don’t waste time on stuff that doesn’t actually make things better.”  Sometimes we deal with the squeaky wheel or the easiest tasks first and never get to what was important.  Resist that urge and leave those simple tasks for that time in the day that you know you are at your lowest energy.

Prioritize Tasks

Knowing how to prioritize is a must – if everything is a priority then it moves towards nothing being a priority.  One way to determine priorities is to use the Eisenhower Matrix.  The goal is to focus on accomplishing the important and urgent before moving on to the other tasks.

  Urgent Not Urgent
Important Do

Do it now

Examples:

·         Emergencies

·         Pressing clients

·         Deadline driven projects

Schedule

Decide when to do it

Examples:

·         Long-term planning

·         Calling back a client

·         Replying to a specific email

Not Important Delegate

Who can do it now?

Examples:

·         Booking a trip

·         Scheduling interviews

 

Delete

Purge Task

Examples:

·         Social media

·         Working on a dead report

 

 

  1. Start by writing down all your tasks – at this point don’t worry about the order, just get down everything that you need to do.
  2. Identify what’s urgent and what’s important and note which of them applies to each task. Tasks can have one, both or none of these identifications.  If the task has none of them then find a way to purge it.
  3. Assess value. Look at the important tasks and identify the high value items.  Determine which tasks have priority over others and how many people are impacted by your work.
  4. Now estimate the amount of time is required for each task and order them from the most effort to the least.
  5. Insert the tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix to gain a full overview of your work tasks

Some tasks will be urgent, but not important.  These are tasks that are good candidates to get delegated to others.  You don’t need to do everything yourself and moving these tasks to others can free up time to get the important and urgent tasks done. Remember that holding on to these tasks can have a large opportunity cost – they are time that could be spent doing something that is yields a greater return on your time investment.  When delegating, keep these things in mind:

  • Find the right person – they should have all the necessary skills and be capable of doing the job.
  • Provide clear instructions – write down the steps and be as specific as possible.
  • Define success – be specific about the expected outcome and the timelines.
  • Clarity – have that person explain the tasks back to you. Clarify what they are unclear about, rewriting the instructions if necessary.
  • Expect that the person will not do it exactly the way you did it – in fact they may find a better way. Don’t let your pride get in the way of delegating things that you should not be doing yourself.

Automate Repetitive Tasks

Find the things that you do multiple times a day or week and see if you can use technology to help you work smarter.  Examples include setting reminders so that you don’t forget anything; creating canned responses for emails that you keep writing repeatedly; or creating spreadsheet templates for reports that you do on a weekly or monthly basis.  Find those common elements and figure out ways to stop reinventing the wheel each time you do them.  Saving a few seconds here and a few seconds there will eventually free up 30 to 60 minutes a day that can be spent on your important and urgent tasks.

Next week we will look at eliminating distractions, how to say “no” more often and gaining more time through batching similar tasks.

Getting from Idea to Action Quicker: The GTD Method

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a time management method created by David Allen.  This method is based on the idea of moving planned tasks and projects out of the mind by recording them externally and then breaking them down into actionable items.  This allows one to focus their attention on acting on tasks instead of recalling them.  For a great explanation, David was interviewed on this edition of The Dealer Playbook podcast.  For a short version of what GTD is, David does a 90 second explanation here.  For a quick infographic on what GTD is, click here.

Most of us are too busy to work on our values, mission and ultimate purpose. Why? Even though our minds are great at creating things, it is terrible at tracking it.  (For a great example see this video from Successful by Design) There is a very good chance that you are tracking tons of things in your head right now. That stuff drains your energy and clogs your creativity because you are relying on yourself to remember it.  This stuff makes it hard to stay afloat on a day to day basis, forget about being able to think bigger.  David talks about getting in control and creating space in his TEDxAmsterdam2014 talk available here.

So, what’s the solution? You have likely been told it’s start at the top and work down.  That’s what’s got you struggling.  Start by mastering the bottom (by mastering getting things done efficiently) and then when you are no longer drowning you can think about your mission, purpose and values.

Getting Things Done is a collection of processes and habits that aim for:

  1. A clean and updated calendar of time-critical actions;
  2. A clear, current and comprehensive list of next actions you can take anywhere, anytime, without the need for further thought or clarification;
  3. A full list of outcomes (big and small) that you’re committed to achieving in the next 12 months; and
  4. A complete system to organize and keep track of all the “stuff” in your life.

By implementing GTD you will:

  • Never let anything important slip by again;
  • Always have pre-prepared options of actionable and productive things to get on with;
  • Have total oversight of everything you’ve committed to in the near future; and
  • Have a totally clear head with no need to mentally track of remember anything.

In short, it’s a way to get your life under control.  Through getting things out of your head and into a trusted system you will trust yourself more. You will know when to say “no” and still feel confident about handling anything that is thrown at you. By making space in your head that the “stuff” used to inhabit, you will have the time and energy to start working on the bigger things.  David talks about “The Art of Stress-Free Productivity” in this video here.

So how does it work? There are 5 Steps plus Planning (David gives a short overview here):

1 – Capture – Collect what has your attention.   Use an in-basket, notepad or voice recorder to capture 100% of everything that has your attention.  Little, big, personal and professional – all your to-do’s, projects, things to handle or finish.

2 – Clarify – Process what it means.  Take everything that you capture and ask: Is it actionable? If no, then trash it, incubate it or file it as a reference. If yes, then decide the very next action required. If it will take you less than 2 minutes, do it now. If not, delegate it if you can; or put it on a list to do when you can.

3 – Organize – Put it where it belongs. Put action reminders on the right lists. For example, create lists for the appropriate categories – calls to make, errands to run, emails to send, etc.

4 – Reflect – Review frequently. Look over your lists as often as necessary to determine what to do next. Do a weekly review to clean up, update your lists and clear your mind.

5 – Engage – Simply do. Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence.

6 – Plan complex projects to get from multistep outcomes to actions.

Here’s a short video where David walks Dutch TV host Linda Geerdlink though getting started with GTD.

Let’s look at these in more detail.

Capture

This includes all your outstanding stuff. Gather every out of place and unfinished thing in your head, your e-mail, your briefcase and wherever else it is stored and put it into a few external inboxes.  An inbox can be a basket, a notebook, a spreadsheet or any other way of getting it all into a small number of places.  You want to get it external to yourself because otherwise it will stay on your mind, eating energy and killing creativity.

Stuff is anything (an action, commitment, project or object) that:

  • You want, should, could, ought or need to act on, now or later; or
  • Anything that is even slightly unfinished or out of place.

Allen refers to this stuff as open loops.  By not having been closed yet, they cause stress because they are things that we could forget.  They are constantly telling your brain to “think about me”.  That stress is what is killing your energy and your creativity.

By collecting you empty these external inboxes so that you can move to the clarifying and organizing stages.  It’s sort of like doing spring cleaning.  Once it has been collected you will have an overview of everything that is unfinished or out of place in your life and it allows you to do the next steps quickly and effectively.  Once you have the system set up, collecting on a weekly basis will become shorter and easier.  While collecting, do not process as you go – you will be much more efficient if you batch all collecting first before trying to process it (the only exception is for items that can be completed in two minutes or less).  If the item is impractical to move (say you need to sell your old car, boat, etc.), use a physical or digital note as a placeholder so that it gets into the system.  Tooodledo.com offers a great infographic on how to do a brain dump here.

Clarify

Clarifying is the process of determining what stuff is, what’s the desired outcome and what is the next action.  You need to answer all these things.  If you don’t know what something is, how can you tell if it is important? The desired outcome lets you know when the thing has been completed.  The next action follows determining the outcome as this is the next step required to move towards that outcome. By not answering these three questions the item will sit in the system and you will not act on it until you are forced to.  Allen says that “you often have to think about stuff more than you realize, but not as much as you’re afraid you might.”

When determining the next action, be complete enough that someone else could do it without needing further clarification or thought.  If the next action is “call garage to schedule an oil change”, include the phone number.  If you don’t know it, then the real next action is “find phone number for Joe’s Garage”.

A few rules for working through your inbox:

  1. Always start with the top item on the pile.
  2. Handle only one item at a time.
  3. Never put anything back into an inbox.

Not sure how to get your inbox to zero? David offers some advice from his blog in response to a help request from a user here.

Organize

This is the process of:

  • Doing, delegating or deferring next actions;
  • Tidying up useful but non-actionable stuff into its proper place; and
  • Trashing what is left.

There are a few tools that you will need for organizing:

  • A calendar for time-critical meetings, events and actions;
  • A way to take notes for lists of actions, outcomes, plans and ideas;
  • A filing system to store information you may need to reference but can’t act on; and
  • A trash can or paper shredder depending on how sensitive the document is.

Allen prefers physical systems but the choice between physical and digital is yours.  Just make sure that the setup is relatively easy and works for you. Want to know what apps David uses to keep his lists?  He discusses them in this short clip here.  David offers some other ideas on what tool to use here.

In the note taking tool create four new notes with the following headings:

  • Waiting For – a list of all things that you are waiting for from others;
  • Next Actions – a list of every doable next action to progress to an outcome;
  • Outcomes – a list of every multi-step outcome that you’re committed to realizing in the next 12 months; and
  • Someday – outcomes or actions you may like to undertake one day under different circumstances.

In your filing system create two new sections or folders inside of it:

  • Plans – visualizations, milestones and next steps for complex outcomes; and
  • Ticklers – stuff you will “mail to self” for later re-processing.
    • Within the ticklers, set up 43 folders:
    • 1-12 are labeled with the name of each month; and
    • The remaining are labeled 1 through 31.

How does this work?  Say you received an email for and event that you want to attend that opens registrations in February.  There is no actionable item for right now, but there will be, so file that invitation in the February folder for later re-processing.  The remaining folders are for items in the current month.  The items will go into the folder representing the day that they are due.

Once an item has been clarified, you now have five choices:

  • Do – if the next action takes 2 minutes or less, do it now;
  • Delegate – if the next action can be done by someone else, delegate it;
  • Defer – commit to acting on a next action at a specific or general time in the future;
  • Tidy – find a proper place for everything and put everything in its proper place; and
  • Trash – dispose of anything that is no longer important or needed.

The best approach is to keep things simple.  Have one proper place for everything and put everything in their proper place. Try to only use one list and fewer folders wherever possible.  Sort things alphabetically – avoid the urge to categorize by sequence and priority.  Reducing complexity will just add thinking that will result in things not getting done and undermining the system.

The one place where many is better is in your next actions list.  Allen recommends splitting next actions across several lists by context, such as place (where you must be), person (who you must be with) or tools (what you must have on hand).  These contexts will help you to remember to be in the right place, with the right people and at the right time.  They will also allow you to batch similar actions together.

David explains what he means by being organized in GTD in this short video here.

Reflect

At a minimum, do a weekly review where you look for items from the previous week that have not yet reached their desired outcome, have been deferred for various reasons or just have not been actioned on yet.  Re-run steps 1 to 3.  Review, update and refresh every one of your folders and use your freed-up headspace to get creative, think big or maybe start a project from your someday list.  For each item answer the following questions to determine what to do with it:

  • Where am I on this?
  • Is it still relevant?
  • Is it still in the right place?
  • What’s the next action?

Engage

Once your system is up and running, this is where you will expend most of your time and energy.  At this point all that is left is the doing and because it has been organized, the doing is much simpler. Everything has been funnelled to your calendar and your master list of next actions.

So how do you decide what to do next?  First, rule out things that you can’t or shouldn’t do based on:

  • Context – what can’t you do based on where you are or what tools you have available?
  • Time available – What can’t you do based on the time until your next appointment?
  • Energy – What shouldn’t you do based on your mental or physical state?

Out of what is left, trust your gut and do what feels most important right now.  Even if you procrastinate, as long as you are working from your list you will be making progress on something.  However, as you get more proficient, there will be less and less reason to avoid doing anything.  David discusses procrastination here.

Something to keep in mind is to never respond instantly to work as it shows up, no matter how “urgent” it is.  Spend a couple of minutes running the request through steps 1, 2 and 3 of GTD. Review any next actions you have identified within the context of all your next actions.  Only engage with the new request if it still is the most important and urgent thing on your plate.  David offers more tips on how to deal with interruptions in this 4-minute video here.

Plan

Sometimes just a moment of thought and effort that’s needed to identify a project’s next action, but its usually better to have a plan.  A good place to start is:

  • Define the purpose and principles – why are you doing this and what are the constraints?
  • Visualize outcomes – what does success look like?
  • Brainstorm – what are all the ideas that you can think of and eliminate the bad ones.
  • Organize – what ideas will you use, which are the most important and what order to do them in.
  • Identify next actions – what is the very next physical action you can take to progress the project?

The goal of GTD is to get things done, so don’t make planning an end in itself.  It must draw out next actions!  Jacob Bronowski puts it as “the world can only be grasped by action, not by contemplation.” If you are spending half of your time building and maintaining your system, you just aren’t doing it right.  Trust your instincts, simplify your system and get things done!

Further Resources

Want more information?  Start with David’s website – https://gettingthingsdone.com David does a monthly podcast where he talks with people who use GTD – https://gettingthingsdone.com/podcasts/ or subscribe to them on iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn, Google Play Music, Spotify or Soundcloud.  The site also has a blog (https://gettingthingsdone.com/gtd-times/ ) that David updates every few days.  His book – Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity – is available on Amazon or at your favorite bookstore.  Buy the 2015 edition as it has been updated with the most current information and research. He has also started a YouTube channel with several short clips that help you understand GTD better that is available here.

Mashable offers a toolbox of 100+ resources for Getting things Done here.

Crafting the Roadmap: Getting from Idea to Action

In last week’s post, we reviewed the S.W.O.T. process. This mechanism, regardless of industry or size, is a crucial step in developing a short and long term strategy for success. Specifically, discussing and owning your company’s current weaknesses and failings is the type of introspection that should occur regularly, with feedback from all roles in the business – from the C-Suite to the Driver’s seat. Further, I’ve always felt that successful businesses, and their leaders, should always be a bit paranoid – in both good times, as well as bad. After you’ve gone through the S.W.O.T. process, and you’ve determined the major objectives for the business (see Part 1 of this series), it’s time to put the plan into action. In general, all well-executed plans have the following key components:

  1. The goal is well defined. Each team member understands what IS to be achieved, and the impact on the business – whether from a financial, as well as from a corporate culture point of view. Each member of the team assigned to the objective should be able to clearly communicate verbally the objective, and the key benefits to the business.
  2. A timeline is established. Execution does not happen without a deadline. Put that on the wall in every room of your business. Conversely, if you want to remain on the treadmill of mediocrity, don’t set deadlines.
  3. Make your people accountable. This part may seem like a no-brainer, however, being a fan of business, I’ve read about (and witnessed) many well-known businesses that got too comfortable. This comfort was rooted in a lack of accountability – from the Board room, all the way down to the front lines (e.g. Kodak, Sears, Toys R Us). Making specific people and teams accountable will ensure continued momentum. This step is also an important vetting process for future business leaders. The ones who step up, and want to reap the rewards (and the potential penalties) are the type of people you build your business around
  4. Incent, Incent, Incent, Succeed. All top performing companies use variable compensation to light the fire for success. Outside of asking your people to become shareholders, there are very few other tangible ways to ensure that your people have Skin in The Game, other than variable compensation. Proper variable compensation plans need to aligned with, and constantly readjusted to make sure they tie to the goals, deadlines and the overall financial impact of the individual actions and decisions made by people and teams. While contemplating these programs, ensure that the compensation program methodology is easily understood, and the objectives, variables and measurement are within the control of the individual and teams being rewarded.
  5. Review and Adjust Regularly. No explanation needed here.

In all industries, leveraging existing frameworks for the above process can vastly improve the speed of developing and executing on a strategy. Many high performing companies have implemented third-party programs such as the Four Disciplines of Execution. Using 4DX or another third-party program narrows the focus, and clearly defines the steps needed to rapidly move forward. Next week, we’ll move from the Macro to the Micro, and discuss the importance of time and task management to executing on your plan.

For your Sunday viewing pleasure, here’s a short video about the 4DX program to get you thinking about your action.

It All Starts with a SWOT

No General leads his or her army into war without knowing both the terrain he or she will face and what the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy they will face. In the current market environment, achieving profitability should not be difficult, even with pressing weaknesses. However, just like seasons change, the market will swing the other way. The smart companies know this, and are reinvesting their profits into building networks and advantages, to put themselves ahead of the their competitors when tide goes out. Knowing what your business needs to do next comes naturally to some business leaders, but for most, setting a course for the future requires equal parts Collaboration, Introspection and Honesty. An excellent way to get you started on this path is with a SWOT analysis.

SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Strengths and Weaknesses are internal business factors while Opportunities and Threats are external factors and variables. There are several different templates out there that can be found with a quick Google search and each organization will have their preferences. However, the physical form is not as important as actually doing the exercise.

This analysis is not just for use at the enterprise level. It is equally powerful when done at the division, department or even product line/customer account level. You are probably already doing a similar analysis on all your top accounts but possibly not in as formal a framework. By using this method in conjunction with being closely integrated with your large account you should be able to foresee any threats to that client and be prepared to fend off any attempts by other carriers to take over some or all of the business.

Strengths
Look at factors such as:
• What are the organization’s advantages?
• What do you do better than others?
• What unique resources can you offer (ideally ones that a customer will pay for)?
• What does the marketplace see as your strengths?
• What is your unique selling proposition?
When looking at your strengths, also look at where you are in relation to your competition. If all your competitors are achieving 98% on-time deliveries then you achieving that is not a strength, it’s a market necessity (a table stake). Also take the viewpoint of the customer as they are the ones making the buying decision!

Weaknesses
• What could you improve on?
• What should you avoid or eliminate?
• What does the marketplace see as your weaknesses?
• What does your competition do better than you do?
• What causes you to lose sales?
• Are their perceived weaknesses that you could easily overcome?
Be honest in this step as downplaying weaknesses will not allow you to move forward and address them.

Opportunities
• What are emerging trends?
• What changes in technology are coming in the near, medium and long terms that you are posed to exploit?
• What competitors are family owned and are showing signs of cash flow issues?
• What new developments are your current customers working on?
• What new businesses are coming to your marketplace?
One approach to take is to look at your strengths and ask if they open any opportunities. At the same time ask yourself if the elimination of any weaknesses could also create an opportunity.

Threats
• What obstacles do you face?
• What are your competitors doing?
• What technological game changers are coming that you are not ready to exploit?
• What is your financial position – any cash flow or debt problems?
• Are quality standards or specifications for your product or service changing?
• Are there any weaknesses that could seriously threaten your business?
• Are there any Political, Economic, Socio-Cultural or Technological (PEST) factors to consider?

Once you have made an exhaustive list for each category, it is now time to pare down the list and prioritize each item. Finally make sure that any options generated are carried through to later stages in the strategy formation process. Make certain that you follow through and create a strategy once the analysis has been done.

An important task is to measure the gap between where you are and where you want to be. This helps you create goals that can be measured and verified. It’s much better to say “achieve a 5% increase in miles per gallon” than it is to say “improve fuel efficiency”. Understanding what these gaps are will guide both you and your staff towards implementing an effective strategy to get to where you want to be.

Finally, be prepared to revisit this analysis on a periodic basis – possibly yearly for the entire enterprise, more often at the product or customer level. Look at what has changed. Did you improve or eliminate any of your weaknesses? Did your competitor find a way to close the gap on your price advantage? Did something new that has the potential to be a game changer come on the market recently? This should not be a static document and it should be one of the first things you turn to when a new threat or opportunity comes on the horizon. By understanding what is happening on the playing field means that you can make the proactive moves of a market leader instead of reacting like a follower.